It started with a dream. And then a lot of determination, hard work and accomplishments. Still dreams remain.
The Land Trust of Napa County celebrated its 40th anniversary recently on an evening that was picture perfect: warm with a soft light filtering over and through the vineyards at the Joseph Phelps Winery. Friends greeted each other, acquaintances were renewed and glasses of sauvignon blanc were handed out, along with name tags.
Doug Parker, the group’s president and CEO, said that 40 years ago a small group of people got together to form the Land Trust. One of their first tasks was to protect Mount George, which was owned by Si and June Foote, two of the founders. The Foote Preserve includes 700 acres on Mount George and an additional 200 acres abutting the preserve.
“If the founders had done no more than that, they would have left a very lasting and tangible legacy,” Parker said. He asked the crowd a rhetorical question: What’s more tangible than a mountain?
“Obviously, it is protected in perpetuity, so thank you for that,” he added.
But, the Land Trust moved on from Mount George and has worked throughout the county. “As of today, we’ve completed 211 land protection projects, totaling 57,500 acres across the county. That’s worth a toast,” he said, raising his glass. “And that’s 11 percent of the county for those who are counting … and we’re counting.”
“We may have come a long way, but we know there’s a long way to go as well,” he added.
Parker then said the Land Trust has “more active land protection projects than we’ve ever had in the history of the organization. We’re also working on the largest projects we’ve ever worked on, and that’s good because we think the next 10 to 15 years will be a critical time for conservation.”
He then made a prediction that is chilling and shows how important the work of the Land Trust is: “The long-term look and feel of Napa County will be determined by what we do in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Parker then listed the group’s current activities.
— Closed an easement with Larry and Susan Turley protecting a beautiful vineyard and 100-year-old olive grove on Highway 29;
— Protected all 388 acres of the Archer Taylor Preserve;
— Completed a couple of large ranch land projects near Lake Berryessa, protecting 1,558 acres;
— Completed the 10th land conservation easement (some 400 acres, all the heritage vineyards) from Betty and Andy Beckstoffer;
— Working on several projects to protect municipal water supplies, both on Howell Mountain for Bell Canyon Reservoir and on Moore Creek for Lake Hennessey;
— Working with the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District to put a one-third cent sales tax ballot measure on the November ballot, to be used for land acquisition.
And, then it was time for Parker to dream, to focus on a priority goal. “A number of the projects that I just mentioned are on the hills and ridges on the east side of the valley,” Parker said. “One of our ambitious goals is essentially to connect the dots. To connect everything from Mt. George, where it began for the Land Trust, up to Milliken Reservoir, across Lake Hennessey, up to Angwin and across to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.”
If the Land Trust is able to connect all the properties that have been protected over the years, it would be “one long, continuous corridor of protected land along the ridge. It’s very important for wildlife, for rare species, for municipal water supplies and for scenic views,” Parker said.
Both Parker and Bruce Phillips, president of the board of directors of the Land Trust, spoke to the group’s members on the deck overlooking acres and acres of vineyards at Joseph Phelps Winery. Phillips read a letter from Bill Phelps, who couldn’t join the celebration because of a prior engagement.
“I vividly remember going with my father (Joe) to the Land Trust offices late in December 1999 to create the Phelps Conservation Easement,” Phelps wrote. “I remember that John Hoffnagle had a huge smile on his face and couldn’t seem to stop chuckling. When I asked him what was up, he said he thought this day would never come. He said that for years he’d call on my father and ask for the easement to be finalized. My Dad always said, ‘John, I’m going to do this and you can take it to the bank,’ but it never seemed to happen.”
Phelps said the easement was complex and numerous details needed to be worked out. “My Dad felt so passionate about this ranch and about its preservation as one of Napa County’s special open spaces, he just needed to know it was in good hands and was going to be properly cared for,” Phelps wrote.
“Our family shares my Dad’s passion for this ranch and we are immensely gratified that it will be preserved in the way he wanted. As many of you know, he passed away late last year, but we all feel his spirt as a constant and comforting presence,” Phelps wrote.
The easement is more than 450 acres and is one of the Land Trust’s largest easements.
Two of those attending the celebration were Duane Cronk and Harold Kelly, two of the founders who gathered in the Footes’ living room in 1976. Kelly said he thought the idea of forming a land trust was a great idea, because he feels strongly about land preservation.
In his career he made loans on land and he said, “I hated to see what was happening down south in the San Jose area, where farmland was being gobbled up and turned over to houses. I didn’t want to see that happen in the Napa Valley.”